Nicola Wilson’s husband was her best friend, but their sex life had dwindled to nothing. He wasn’t othered, but she needed more, so sought help from the experts to discover how to have more sex in her marriage…
My experiment didn’t start well. ‘What’s this?’ my husband guffawed, as he snatched the packet from my hand. ‘It’s, um, they’re, um, well, you see… sex cards.’ Of course, the children came running in, demanding to know what was so funny.
I’d bought the cards, which contain prompts to help start conversations around sex, in an attempt to rekindle our waning physical intimacy. But, as my eight-year-old read the word ‘erotic’ before having the card snatched from her hand, the whole family dissolved into hysterics.
Navigating friendship and sex in marriage
That episode epitomises my situation. I’m very happy with the lovely man I met 20 years ago at university. He’s the sort of person who people describe as ‘solid’ and ‘one of a kind’. He does all the cooking and shopping, he cleans, he’s an amazing father, he makes me laugh uproariously and he’s the cleverest person I know.
He’s my best friend. However, all of this doesn’t exactly translate into great sex. If I’m honest, maybe it never has for us. We have two kids, so clearly we must have ‘done it’ at some point, but I don’t think I can recall a time when we were ripping each other’s clothes off. Our friendship has always come first, from the very first night we spent together – him complimenting me on my musical taste and me marvelling at his intellect.
On the surface, I wouldn’t switch what we have for loads of sex and no friendship. And yet… I still fancy my husband. He’s tall, broad-shouldered and outdoorsy – exactly my type. I watch films in which couples who have been together for years are still hot for each other in the bedroom, and I want that. I don’t particularly want kinky or experimental sex, I just want more sex.
Starting conversations about sex
The cards, entitled ‘Pillow Talk’, come from The School of Life, who seemed to understand my predicament: ‘Too often, we find ourselves not having as many good conversations about sex as we might like. Maybe we don’t know where to start, perhaps some aspects feel tricky, or there is not enough time to get around to talking about it.’
This speaks to my problems. I don’t know where to start. I talk to psychologist and sex expert Daniel Sher. ‘As contradictory as it may seem,’ he says, ‘developing a relationship that feels safe and intimate can make it difficult for a couple to have an exciting sex life. I see couples who feel everything is going right– except in their sex lives. They may then seek sexual excitement elsewhere.’
Subconscious beliefs about sex
I don’t worry about my partner seeking sex elsewhere, but maybe I worry about myself. In the past, I’ve had flirtations as a result of my frustrations, always (so far) with unobtainable people – for safety’s sake.
One of the reasons, says Sher, is that ‘on a preconscious level, many of us carry a belief that sex is dirty or forbidden. It can be hard to marry this idea with the notion of a partner and our love for them, which is thought to be pure and unadulterated’.
This chimes with me. My other half is a kind, decent man who introduced me to the idea of feminism. We’ve talked for hours about patriarchy and the male gaze. Combining this with unbridled passion has never come easily to us.
But Sher is reassuring. ‘If you’re in this situation, it’s a good thing. You’ve established a relationship based on trust, safety and intimacy. Your conflict about desiring a more exciting sex life presents you with the opportunity to make your relationship that much more fulfilling.’
How to have a more fulfilling sex life in marriage
But how can we have more fulfilling sex lives in our marriage? Communicate, Sher says. ‘Do so openly and honestly. Look at how each of you feels about sex. Talk about your deepest and darkest fantasies. If it feels appropriate, explore them in the bedroom. Reaffirm to one another that it’s OK to have a wild sex life, while still loving one another in a manner that is healthy and respectful.’
This is where the plan starts to unravel – and also come together. I’m not an avid reader of sexy stories. I find sex onscreen almost embarrassing, and so does he. It’s clear that this is where some of the problems lie. We’re both resistant to talking about sex in any meaningful way, but we’re going to have to get over it.
Use prompts to discuss your desires
So, pretending to show a scientific interest in the sex cards, when we’re alone, I read out a few. He rolls his eyes mockingly. He’s not comfortable with sexy chat – I shudder when I remember asking him to talk dirty to me years ago. It didn’t happen and we never spoke of it again. I understand why.
He’s one of the most honest people I know and asking him to pretend to be someone he isn’t is way outside his comfort zone. But, at the same time, I’m hurt. He knows this is important to me, but he won’t engage with something that could help us. So I persist.
The cards are surprisingly deep. Things like: ‘Is the problem with infidelity that it hurts the other person, or is it bad in itself?’ and ‘What kind of power dynamics excite you?’ This question is a killer. I know he hates any kind of power dynamic – to feel dominated or dominating and, of course, that’s what I love about him.
I wonder if sex has to be unequal on one level for it to be thrilling – and then I worry about what that says about my attitude to sex. ‘Power dynamics don’t excite me at all,’ he says, and the conversation around this one shuts down. I don’t pursue it further– although perhaps I should.
Explore what turns you both on
The next card – ‘In order to get me more in the mood for sex, it would help if…’ is a simple and obvious one but if, like us, you don’t know where to start, it can open a lot of doors. He gives a pat answer – ‘Um… you were in the room?’ I know he’s not comfortable with this. The idea of anyone telling him what to do is utterly abhorrent to him.
But he’s open to me asking the questions on the cards, so I take them as my cue and start to think about my own needs and how I can present them. This works, and I feel more and more emboldened to fight for what I want. I persist. I start more conversations (fuelled by the cards but not with them in hand) and I listen to his answers. He listens too.
Flirt with your partner
A few days later, early in the morning, something stirs (I’ll leave it at that). Later, I send him a flirty text. He replies – granted, it’s hardly Casanova talk but, for once, our texts aren’t about food shopping, music lessons or swimming kit. The tone is different. We’re two people who fancy each other, not just carers of children.
Things change. We start to make more of an effort to not just be kind to each other as parents and friends, but to look at each other as fellow humans with needs and desires. We snuggle more in the morning, send each other sexy texts during the day and start to make time for each other as fellow sexual beings, as well as parents and pals.
Stop putting your partner on a pedestal
Instead of sniggering when we watch a sex scene on TV, we raise an eyebrow and curl up closer. Things change inside me too. I realise that I have been putting him on a pedestal, and this hasn’t helped; valuing him for his human qualities, but forgetting about what I might actually want in a sexual partner. It is still a work in progress, but we now both agree that we have to do this.
We begin to have more conversations about sex and, in time, to talk more about what we like and what we don’t like. We notice the other starting to take heed when we’re actually doing it. And we notice the other noticing – which is sexy in itself. So, we’re getting there. We may not be swinging from the chandeliers just yet but that’s fine by me because we don’t actually have any and they’d be a pain to clean.
How to have more open conversations about sex in your marriage
Sex and intimacy expert Camilla Constance shares her advice on how to express your desires with your partner to have a more fulfilling sex life in marriage
1. Show compassion
Be kind to yourself and your partner, and notice how much easier it gets. Acknowledge what makes you both feel safe. You may love face-to-face communication but that may freak out your partner; try sitting or lying next to each other.
Speak gently and stay relaxed. If you start feeling tense, take a few deep breaths to calm your nervous system and return you to a relaxed state.
2. Take time to listen
If you know that what you are saying will be received without judgment, criticism or harsh words, you will feel a lot less tense about speaking. The role of the listener is crucial.
If you are not sure how your partner would like to be listened to, ask them. If it feels uncomfortable at first, see it as a muscle you are learning to stretch and commit to it as one of the most important acts of love – which it is.
3. Create structure
Consider using a technique such as ‘fears, desires, loves’. This gives you both the opportunity to talk about each of these three topics for a chosen time, without interruption or response. The person listening only speaks to thank the speaker and to prompt them with, ‘Anything else?’ if they have stopped early.
Then you swap, and the other person takes their turn to speak, but not to respond to what their partner has just said. As you incorporate this as a regular practice, you will find that you share more and more deeply.